Satire and fantasy mix intriguingly in Birdman as an actor known for his portrayal of a superhero in a movie series tries to earn artistic credibility by financing a Broadway production of his own adaptation of a novel.
Synecdoche, New York by Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Alejandro González Iñárritu (Biutiful, Babel) has directed Birdman in what appears to be a single fast-moving single take, following Michael Keaton (as actor Riggan Thompson) in every scene bar one as a pervading feeling of unease and mania escalates. Of course it’s not one take, but the camera swoops and glides with him throughout the film and the edits are invisible.
In the first scene Riggan is levitating in what turns out to be his seedy dressing room at a Broadway theatre and when he’s called, we follow him down to the stage through the labyrinthine backstage passages and stairways that may reflect the convolutions of his increasingly manic thought processes. He is producing, directing and acting in his own adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story What Do We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Previews start imminently but it’s still being rehearsed – and at the eleventh hour Riggan brings in method actor Mike (rumbustious Edward Norton) as a replacement to add gravitas. Mike dominates Riggan’s concept of the production and critiques his acting by pulling rank as a bona fide stage actor – unlike Riggan, who is only known for his past commercial success as a superhero in the movie franchise Birdman, and therefore has no artistic credibility in the eyes of Mike – and also of a jaded and vituperative theatre critic, brilliantly played by Lindsay Duncan, who promises Riggan she will destroy the production with her first-night review.
The production seems doomed. Complications pile up. Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emily Stone) is reluctantly working as his assistant, fresh out of rehab, disillusioned and critical. Riggan is having an affair with actress Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who is close to the other actress in the four-handed production, Lesley (Naomi Watts). Edward Norton as Mike is wonderfully unreasonable, overbearing and also devious. Zach Galifianakis is everywhere as Riggan’s lawyer and scheming manager. And all the time, as the first night looms, Riggan is running out of money to finance a production which seems out of control, is riddled with self-doubt and has the self-destructive inner voice of his alter ego Birdman carping in his head, gruffly, coarsely telling him he’s making a big mistake. Oh, and when he’s alone, Riggan can perform telekinesis on inanimate objects – and fly.
Birdman is a sharp, tour de force satire on so many related things – Hollywood, Broadway, celebrity and social media. It’s so full of details that as soon as it was over, I wanted to watch it all over again to appreciate what I’d missed. It even makes that old trope nightmare of an actor being accidentally shut out of the theatre when he’s supposed to be making an entrance on stage fresh and very funny, as Riggan scurries desperately through Times Square in his underpants dodging fans who recognise him as Birdman – and in doing so becomes a trending topic on social media as videos are uploaded by his daughter Sam, thus finally achieving the coverage he’d been seeking – though not in the way he wanted. The premise of the film plays on Keaton’s own involvement as a superhero with the Batman franchise and he is unflinchingly excellent in his portrayal of a washed-up movie actor – paunchy, balding and seeking affirmation in a more intellectual environment. And as an extra layer there are the flights of fantasy – or are they? We can never be sure just what is in Riggan’s mind and what is not – of Riggan’s apparent power to fly like Birdman. Or should that be to fly like Icarus?
Birdman is released on 1st January 2015 in the UK